In April 2006, journalist Karen Catchpole and photographer Eric Mohl, left New York City in a pickup truck and embarked on their epic Trans-Americas Journey , a multi-year, 200,000-mile working roadtrip through North, Central, and South America. Their open itinerary has allowed them to move slowly and thoroughly southward. When I caught up to them, they had just returned to Flores, Guatemala after a six-day trek to El Mirador archeological site, one of the most bad-ass ruins around. The couple had visited more than fifty archaeological sites throughout Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala--and blogged about them all at www.trans-americas.com .
JB: When did you first travel to a country in the Mundo Maya? Where did you go and how did it impact you?
Karen & Eric: The first Maya site we visited on our Trans-Americas Journey was a way-off-the-beaten-path gem called La Milpa in the Río Bravo Conservation Area in northern Belize. Believed to have been settled in 400 b.c., La Milpa is a wonderful example of the charms of a largely unexcavated site. Though archaeology professors and students from the United States have heavily studied La Milpa, its structures have not been unearthed or rebuilt in any way. What you see is what you get, including some fantastic stelae still in their original positions. But mostly what you see are rocky mounds which the jungle has long-since re-claimed. Wandering amongst them your imagination goes wild picturing how the place might have looked when it was a thriving city. We think this sense of possibility and mystery is part of what hooks archaeologists.
JB: What advice do you have for someone traveling to a Maya village and/or archeological site for the first time?
K&E: Generally speaking, the Maya we’ve met are an easy-going, forgiving bunch and they don’t demand much beyond general good behavior. The best advice for behaving well in a Maya village applies to all cultures: Watch what the locals do and do the same. If no one wears shorts, don’t wear shorts. If they don’t touch each other when greeting or speaking, keep your hands to yourself. Smile. A lot. Speaking of smiles, many Maya don’t mind having their pictures taken, but some do and ALL of them will be happier and smilier if you learn how to say something like “You’re beautiful! Can I take a picture?” in Spanish (which most Maya speak in addition to their own language).
When visiting Maya archaeological sites, follow the rules. Do not be that guy who thinks the “please don’t climb this temple” sign doesn’t apply to him--that guy’s really annoying. In general, try to behave as you would like travelers of the future to behave when they visit the remains of your hometown.
JB: What about on December 21, 2012? Do you think people will/should try to visit a main temple site on this date?
K&E: If you can handle crowds this is sure to be a special time at many of the main archaeological sites. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself! If crowds aren’t your thing, head for any of the many, many lesser known and less-visited sites like Uaxactun, north of Tikal. The celebrations there will be smaller, but the crowds will be too.
JB: What does "responsible tourism" mean when traveling in the Mundo Maya? How do you make sure that inviting travelers to the heart of the Maya world does not somehow dilute, contaminate, demean, or otherwise damage that culture?
K&E: The problem with the phrase “responsible tourism” is that the word “responsible” means different things to different people. We try to employ a travel-version of “do unto others” whenever we are lucky enough to spend time in cultures other than our own where the rules might be unknown to us and our impact could be detrimental. All people on the planet want to be treated with respect and an open mind, and if you can keep both things handy your impact will be less detrimental and may even be positive. And let’s not forget that the Maya have survived worse than us (we’re looking at you Cortés…).